Last weekend’s rescues on Mount Hood gave a three-stage look ahead to what could be a hazardous summer.
Recent heavy snow fall followed by moderate temperatures meant the snowpack had less chance to freeze and firm up, leaving the mountain susceptible to avalanche.
It was one such event that created dangerous conditions for rescuers over a 10-hour period on Sunday.
Hood River Crag Rats joined several other volunteer search and rescue oufits in what amounted to a three-day-long involvement, including helping two injured climbers off the south and north sides of the peak. In Sunday’s incident, a climber was hurt in an avalanche on Reid glacier in Hood River County.
The dangers to rescuers are compounded by COVID, and the realities of working in close quarters, according to Crag Rat Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg.
“As a unit we were prepped and ready for a rescue on Memorial Day weekend because it’s a very busy climbing season normally, and with the pandemic recently relaxing and more people wanting to get out and climb, we were prepped and ready to respond,” Van Tilburg said.
Crag Rats’ involvement started Thursday night and Friday morning, in responding to the rescue of a hypothermic climber out of the Paradise Park area in Clackamas County. Crag Rats were called in to assist Portland Mountain Rescue responders already in the field, according to Van Tilburg, an experienced mountain rescue physician who also serves as Hood River County Health Official.
In a third response, a team of Crag Rats spent 90 minutes gearing up to help two hikers off the mountain, but the individuals were able to self-extricate. Responders have to pre-plan for every response, and each response is different.
“It was a full day and a half,” Van Tilburg said. A total of 20 Crag Rats were involved total in all three missions.
It happened that on Friday, Van Tilburg and fellow Crag Rats Eric Peterson and Cully Wiseman were planning to do a training summit of the mountain and were already mobilized.
“Then at 3:45 a.m., while we were still at home, we got the call to help” with the rescue of the hypothermic climber, Van Tilburg said.
The trio, along with Crag Rate Heiko Stopsack, rode the Sno-Cat from Timberline to the 9,000-foot level on Zig Zag glacier.
“We were getting ready to drop in when they decided they had enough people, at about 8 a.m.," he said.
The Crag Rats returned to the mountain Sunday for a training climb, and mid-day were heading down the mountain when they got call a call that a woman was hurt in an avalanche on Leuthold couloir, above the Reid glacier.
Seven Crags went to assist Portland Mountain Rescue.
“We got the call sometime after noon, and reached her mid-afternoon,” Van Tilburg said.
“Luckily, (we) had teams up the mountain or two reasons: The earlier search for the hypothermic patient, and Portland Mountain Rescue and Crag Rats had teams up there with teams on patrol,” he said.
“A small rescue group went to the woman who was hurt and packaged her, and a larger group staged at Illumination Saddle extricated her from Reid to Illumination Saddle then skied across,” pulling her on a gurney, he said.
Portland Mountain Rescue reached her first and got her situated. Van Tilburg said the woman suffered a broken ankle but was able to get out from under loose snow.
“That afternoon was really really warm — it’s one reason avalanche danger was so high,” Van Tilburg said.
He said conditions were “very unstable,” in light of the new snow from the week before, combined with rapid rewarming without refreezing.
“And there was a lot of wind transport, put all that into the blender and it becomes a very extreme situation for avalanche,” he said.
“We sent one Crag Rat up early with another crew, avalanche expert Cody Taylor, just for that reason, to survey the scene and provide avalanche parameters,” he explained. Later in the day, conditions stabilized once temperatures cooled.
“It was still high risk, but clear skies and lighter wind in the evening, made it safer,” he said. Van Tilburg explained that avalanche danger is influenced greatly by solar radiation, so as direct sun gets off the snow “it tends to stabilize somewhat” by dusk.
He added that “It was incredibly bright up there, fresh snow is stark white.”
He said after the ski-out, all crews were off the mountain by about 10 p.m., with no further injuries.
Van Tilburg issued a plea and a warning to anyone seeking to climb the mountain under current conditions:
“First, conditions are very dangerous right now, and two, when we get called out on a rescue, it puts rescuers in danger and we’re people who have jobs and families.
"We volunteer our time because we love it, but it puts a lot of people in danger.”
In additon to 20 Crag Rats, the weekend saw participation by 40 Pacific Mountain Rescue members, and about a dozen from Pacific Northwest American Medical Response.
“We all put into the field on missions and it puts us all at risk. Be careful and use good judgment,” Van Tilburg said.
The dangers are worsened by concerns over preventing spread of disease. Van Tilburg worked with his fellow rescuers this weekend to employ a COVID rescue response protocol he had written as chair of National Mountain Rescue Medical Committee. “There are lots of COVID protocols and the CDC has good guidelines, but it is somewhat difficult to adapt to mountain rescue, where we are working in austere locations, working hard, shoveling snow, everything on our mission is on our back. With some colleagues, I put together a protocol for Crag Rats, and for the most part it worked pretty well,” he said. “We do the best we can. One of the things we learned is that when you are on a mountain rescue and have to follow COVID protocol, everything takes longer.”
He explained that with four people on a rope system designed to give a team safe access across or up a specific piece of alpine territory, “instead of working simultaneously we have people do each job separately so we don’t stand too close together.”
Van Tilburg said Crag Rat as an organization is currently limited to on-line training sessions and they help to an extent, and he and other Crag Rats are keeping in physical and climbing shape, but help from the public is needed — and not just on the slopes of Mt. Hood.
“As Gorge trails get ready to open, we are spooled up for what we think is going to be a busy rescue season,” he said. “We are ready, and rearranging our personal lives, but it will tax our team.
“Be careful and use good judgment,” he said.